Boarding school is off the agenda quite quickly, My asthma is at its worst – I am ill in bed more and more. Initially, the plan is to find a nearby public school I might attend as a day pupil. A prospectus arrives from Haileybury School but in the end, possibly for financial reasons, this idea is also abandoned. In September 1970, at the age of 12, I will be moving from private school to state school, and from single sex school to co-educational school.
You may have noticed that girls have not loomed large thus far in my childhood narrative. There were a couple of girls I liked during my early years. I really liked Jill Bentham, but her family moved away when I was quite young. Then there was Katy Goodacre, who lived next door to us until we moved to the bigger house – the only person I ever managed to persuade (briefly) that I was a superhero (I was always hoping, OK? Who knew?).
Then in the summer of 1969 I meet the first girl I have a real crush on. After several years of self-catering summer holidays in Dorset, we instead spend a week at St Michael’s Hotel in Lyme Regis and then a second week staying with my great aunt Sue in her cottage at Charmouth. My father discovers the hotel while down on a business trip and concludes (rightly) that it would be a lovely place for us to stay. The owners have a daughter called Vicky. She has long brown hair, and is funny and lively with a perpetual, huge beaming smile on her face. I fall for her hard and for that week we are thick as thieves. Worries about school and about gender melt away for the duration. We chat endlessly – she talks wittily and sensibly and I return the favour with clumsy nerdspeak and handy demos of my reel-to-reel tape recorder (which we have brought along) about which she proves remarkably tolerant. Vicky also has a huge, lovably affectionate pet spaniel. Instead of a wall or fence, the end of the hotel garden blurs into woods and bracken and I remember us throwing a ball into the undergrowth endlessly one afternoon for her dog to fetch with varying degrees of success. Decades later I can still hear the noises of the spaniel lunging through the bracken and returning panting, sometimes in triumph and sometimes without the ball, as if I was there now. It’s as vivid as the memory of an uncomplicated, first pre-pubescent romance would be, but also because that holiday felt like a temporary refuge from the increasing complications at home and in my head. I will see Vicky again, when she will break my heart by selfishly not waiting two years for me to return from embattled Hertfordshire.
I go back to Keble that autumn but it is my last year at the school. I never make it to the Keble sixth form or sit the common entrance exam (the standard exam for entry to public school), leaving a year earlier than the other boys to start in my new, local school. I say my goodbyes and have almost no contact with those schoolmates ever again.
Goffs Grammar School is new, founded in 1964. It is very different from what I was used to. Its modern buildings are populated by students from a much wider range of social backgrounds than I am used to. There are children from Cuffley (mostly affluent parents), Goffs Oak (slightly more modest social standing, we liked to think then) and Cheshunt (primarily working class families). The school is in Cheshunt itself, and across the road is the newly-built Rosedale estate, home to families rehoused from London.
I find it disorienting. Moving up to senior school is a challenging experience for many children, but for me the students are very different from what I was used to – and there are girls. I know no-one in the school except one boy in the year above, whose family lives round the corner from us. He has the distinction of being the most unpopular child in his year, and is repeatedly bullied and humiliated. So he’s no use – I’m on my own. I find myself in a class of close to 30 with a roughly 50:50 gender split. That’s the class, not me. Or maybe it’s both.
When the register is taken the girls are called out by their first name, and the boys by their last name. Because of that, I can recall the boys’ part of the register even now. Britcher, Curson, Eccleshall (arrived in third term), Fenton, Garner, King, Lamb, McAlpine, Norris, Palmer, Pring, Seaforth, Taylor. Don’t think I’ve left anyone out.
Not only do I feel different from the other children, but unlike at Keble there are things that mark me out as different. At Keble you raise your hand if you know the answer – not at Goffs. At Keble you stand up when you talk to the teacher – not at Goffs. It takes me half a term to lose the habit of springing up instinctively. In a geography lesson, for some strange reason the teacher asks each student what car his father drives. “A Jaguar”, I reply when it’s my turn to howls of inverted snobbery. Oh God, my card is so marked, this funny Little Lord Fauntleroy. I am punched in the stomach by the drinking fountain. shoved up against the coat pegs in the cloakrooms, picked on relentlessly on the school coach travelling home each day. Socially I am totally at sea and don’t know how to handle things. I am scared out of my wits by the girls and just don’t know what to say to them. The degree of social variation in the school is also baffling, and I have no doubt that I was, in turn, a nasty little snob (albeit a cowardly one), particularly in my attitude to the Cheshunt children, who I definitely look down on at first.
Intensively schooled at Keble, I find I already know everything the syllabus covers for the first two years. My schoolmates are just starting French – I’ve had four years of it, plus four years of Latin. I feel isolated, embarrassed and friendless. During the course of the year I form one dysfunctional ‘friendship’ with a boy who is just looking for someone to bully.
In the middle of this horrible year, every pupil is taken to be examined by the school doctor. I queue up in innocence, with no expectations, little realizing that ahead of me is another incident which will change my life forever, and mark me out as even more “different”.